Educator Brings Past to Present with Tours

Michael Schatz with a tour group in Vilna Congregation (Photos provided)

Michael Schatz’s love for Jewish education has taken him to working at Gratz College, serving as president of the Jewish Educators Assembly and running Philadelphia Jewish History Tours.

Schatz, an Elkins Park resident whose family has lived in the Philadelphia area for generations, has taken groups on walking and bus tours of Philadelphia’s Jewish history for about three years. The tours are an offshoot of his work as a Jewish educator.

“As an educator, to look at history and living history and teaching people — not in a classroom — in a different kind of a format was an exciting sideline to what I am typically doing,” Schatz said.

Schatz works at a few different synagogues, as well as for a private company called Hebrew Helpers. This past year, he was awarded an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He mostly does group tours — with students, senior adults, sisterhoods and others — but has also done a tour open to individuals and a family tour. He is interested in expanding, for example by taking National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) visitors to places they have learned about at the museum.

Schatz leads the groups on different paths through the old Jewish Quarter of Society Hill and Queen Village, or Wynnefield and West Philadelphia, or the Northeast and Elkins Park and more.

Teenagers, Schatz said, like the walking tour of Society Hill and Queen Village, while older adults love to go back to the neighborhoods where they or their parents grew up.

The tours can take participants as far back as the 1740s — when Jewish immigrants began establishing a community in Philadelphia — with visits to the Mikveh Israel Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. He shows participants the places where the community’s synagogues, schools, kosher eateries and recreation centers used to be.

Michael Schatz in front of Society Hill Synagogue

Schatz often learns more about Philadelphia’s Jewish history from his own tour participants.

Once, when Schatz took a tour group to Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a man in the group happened to have been instrumental in the merger of the two synagogues and told Schatz that story in great detail.

Another time, while touring a church that used to be a synagogue with a group of seniors from Golden Slipper Gems on the Main Line, one man said that he had been Bar Mitzvahed there.

Moriah SimonHazani, the director of Golden Slipper Gems on the Main Line, said she took two groups of older adults on the tours with Schatz. He previously taught a course at Golden Slipper, which SimonHazani said resonated with the older adults who attended. She said Golden Slipper Gems was interested in organizing more tours with Schatz in the future.

“He’s very important to both preserving the history of Jewish Philadelphia but also projecting to the next generation,” SimonHazani said.

The history of Jewish Philadelphia begins with immigration from London and Amsterdam when the city was still young.

As different migratory waves of Jews came from different countries throughout the centuries, they spread out. When German Jews began arriving in the 19th century, they clustered to the north near Franklin Square, then later into Northern Liberties. As Russian Jews settled around South Street, Marshall Street and Port Richmond, the German Jews spread north toward Elkins Park, Schatz said.

It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70 that Jews began moving into the suburbs in substantial numbers, Schatz said.

Nowadays, as people prioritize living closer to work over living near other Jewish people, the population has spread across Greater Philadelphia.

“Today is really different,” Schatz said. “The community is so spread out and so suburban, and there’s a lot of people moving back into the city, young people and empty nesters moving back into Center City, so there still is a vibrant Jewish community, but you can’t say that there’s a Jewish neighborhood.”

Schatz has always been interested in history. As a child, stories from his grandparents about the neighborhoods they grew up in fascinated him, and his Jewish education at Beth Sholom Congregation cemented that interest.

His training ground for being a Jewish educator was Camp Ramah, where he spent every summer from the age of 17 to 25 as a counselor. He also participated in Gratz College’s program for high schoolers.

After high school, he attended Vassar College, where he studied pre-med for a bit before changing his major to Jewish studies. Vassar didn’t have a Jewish studies program at the time, so he designed his own curriculum, taking classes in religion and history.

“My father’s a doctor,” Schatz said. “It’s not that they pushed me into [pre-med], but I guess that’s what a lot of kids see — what their parents do — and they figure that’s what they’re going to do, until they realize they can be their own person.”

After college, he worked for United Synagogue Youth as a regional director, then got a master’s in education from Arcadia University and started working at Gratz. He also has a master’s and doctorate in Jewish education from Gratz.

“I love being Jewish,” Schatz said. “I loved the study and the ritual and synagogue and the culture of the Jewish people and Israel, and imparting that to young people and also to interested learning adults and my own children and, beyond that, my students. It is what I wanted to do.”

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  1. Thanks for sending this. So glad you are doing this.
    Will be in Philadelphia the weekend of May 11.
    My grandmother was Rose Servetnik.
    Are you doing any tours that weekend?
    I live in DC.


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